With the global wellness industry growing at over 10 percent per year, the scrutiny attached to such a rapid upward trajectory makes it unsurprising that wellness companies have come under fire for being elitist and out of touch with consumers. But a wave of new and established brands are embracing ethical accreditations and trying to widen access to wellbeing products and services.
As fast as health-conscious consumption grows in importance as a market segment, the scale of global challenges to public health is also swelling. “Diet is a leading cause of disease worldwide – it’s overtaken tobacco,” explains epidemiologist and chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Mental Wellness Initiative, Gerry Bodeker, who emphasises the nutritional challenges shared by developing and richer countries alike.
In addition, with political and economic factors fuelling inequality at a cost to wellbeing and happiness, Oxford business and economics professor and associate editor of The World Happiness Report Jan Emmanuel de Neve, believes “the industry has a moral obligation to break out of the 1 percent silo and serve the wellness needs of a wider group of people.”
One British company that has been addressing the challenge of mass-market nutrition for fifteen years is Pukka Herbs, whose organic teas and nutritional supplements are guided by Ayurvedic principles and stocked by retailers including Asda and Morrisons. “Our vision when we started was to make organic herbs as accessible as possible,” explains co-founder Tim Westwell. “In fact, the first time I went to a trade fair and met other people in the industry, I was shocked that not everybody was in it for the same reason.”
Bodeker meanwhile, emphasises the benefits to society of widening access to spas, where firms aligning themselves with luxury – and charging accordingly – can often dominate. “A facial for older people who can’t afford to pay much for it provides human touch, a focus on beauty, stimulates the immune system and gives them something to look forward to,” he explains.
One social enterprise leading the way to making this segment of the wellness space more accessible is Spa Experience, a brand owned by social enterprise Greenwich Leisure Limited, which launched the UK’s first ever public spa in Bethnal Green in 2007. It now boasts ten branches across England and Northern Ireland and offers access to hammams, Turkish baths and saunas for under £10, as well as discounts on treatments for older and unemployed users.
“A warm welcome and inclusivity for all is one of the cornerstones of the business,” explained Group Spa Manager Melissa Evans, in a statement last year. Around the world, health retreats like holistic health destination Le Monastère des Augustins in Quebec, which allows carers to stay for $30 a night, are also rising to the challenge.
And as academic research points to the importance of work when it comes to achieving happiness, there’s mounting pressure on wellness brands in the UK and US to show they’re enlightened employers, as well as providers of fairly priced products.
In the service sector, Bodeker argues that, “caring for the carers” is moving up the agenda. He points to The Breakers; a family-run hotel in Florida, that will play host to this year’s Global Wellness Summit. According to Bodeker, the establishment boasts a commitment to putting staff first which has garnered awards from the American Heart Association, in particular for its employee health and wellness programs.
Elsewhere, when the National Living Wage was introduced to the UK, back in April 2016, health club operator and healthcare provider Nuffield Health bucked the trend of employer criticism of the policy and pledged to pay employees of all ages a minimum of £7.20 an hour, despite the law only applying to those over 25. It was significant move given that more than one-in-five UK gym instructors are under 24, according to SkillsActive, and the median annual salary in the industry is some £5,000 less than the national average.
It’s an ethos which is being embraced by healthy food and drink brands too.“‘Good’ goes further than looking and tasting good,” explains Simon Coley, co-founder of New Zealand-based Karma Cola, “it means respecting and replenishing our resources and the lives of the people who grow and live amongst them.”
The beverage brand, which was founded in New Zealand in 2012, and secured a place on the menu at Jamie’s Italian and Barbecoa restaurants this August, not only provides an organic option for soft-drink fans but invests a portion of its profits in the Sierra Leone communities from which they source ingredients.
Pukka is also committed to communities along its supply chain, from the herb-growers in the Indian region of Western Ghatz whom the brand is helping shift to more economically and environmentally sustainable types of cultivation to vulnerable young people near the company’s head office in Bristol who are battling food poverty. “We’re trying to provide authenticity,” explains Westwell.
Of course, for those wellness brands that do rise to the challenge of doing business with a mission, the risk of being seen as inauthentic poses a serious challenge. Lululemon’s manifesto commitment to “choosing happy thoughts” has jarred with accusations of fat shaming on the part of the company’s original Founder Chip Wilson, while Whole Foods Market has come under criticism for CEO John Mackey’s right-wing political stance.
Corporate social responsibility accreditations can offer reassurance to customers that values are being adhered to, at the same time as guidance for striving brands. “Even with a vision like ours and a real and authentic will to do good, business is complex and having B Corp is a beautiful roadmap,” explains Rebel Kitchen Founder Tamara Arbib, whose dairy-free snack brand was awarded the certification in May 2017.
“Accreditation keeps you honest and gives you the structure to be able to really and truly assess how much good you are doing from a holistic viewpoint,” she muses.
“People can be cynical, and I completely understand why,” adds Westwell, whose brand has also been awarded the ethical gold standard. “But an accreditation like B Corp says ‘we’re in this for the long run.’” For him, the big challenge is raising consumer awareness of what the certification means so that buyers can more effectively “vote with their dollars” for a more responsible type of wellness business.
However, for young brands in the wellness space that are trying to do things differently, getting the message across to consumers in an effective manner can feel a bit like the first rung on a rather unsteady ladder. “Not always is the right thing to do the right thing for the financial wellbeing of the business,” argues Arbib. “In theory, you want to do everything right all the time but you are playing in a game that isn’t yet fully set up with conscious rules in place, and when you are a small business you don’t always have the clout to make third party suppliers play to them.”
As the industry continues to grow in size and influence, Bodeker is confident that brands will play a key role in shaping not just the sector but the wider world. “I see wellness entrepreneurship playing a key role in addressing important health challenges – businesses are necessary ambassadors of change,” he explains. But it won’t happen overnight.
According to De Neve, “policymakers and business leaders have tended to undervalue the benefits of things like yoga and mindfulness,” despite this being one of the areas where industry players can make the biggest impact on customers, employees and communities.
And with buyers outside of established wellness markets like the US, UK and Australia still flocking to less healthy types of consumerism as their expendable income increases, convincing consumers and officials alike of the benefits of conscientious wellness will be no mean feat for these ambitious innovators.